Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)
It’s certainly interesting that the two black & white feature films of the 1930s that most modern movie-lovers are first exposed to are not Dodsworth and The 39 Steps, adult entertainments that now seem rather eerily modern, but King Kong and Frankenstein, action and horror films respectively that tell variants on the same plotline: misunderstood creature is prodded and abused by doltish humans until acting out the only way he knows to, only to be immediately and roundly punished for it — cornered and killed. A lot of us might understandably giggle at the quaintness of it all, but of course the films transcend and even celebrate their now-dated elements. When Carl Laemmle comes out pre-credits to tell us we might want to think twice about watching this because it could give us heart attacks or cause nervous breakdowns, our impulse is to not just smile at the ridiculousness of it all but to revel in the feeling of being innocently spooked.
Director James Whale, a British emigrant with a sly sense of humor and appreciation for the perverse, likely would’ve enjoyed this reaction; the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is more explicit in its mixture of knowing comedy and outright terror. At the time, audiences responded mostly to the thrills and scares and could detect little of the gleeful absurdity and nuance in the narrative Whale wrings out of Mary Shelley’s novel and the Peggy Webling play. Whale’s the real mad scientist here, subverting literature to create an American mythology that remains in place even now, long after the effects would by all logic have come to look antiquated rather than spectacular, laughable rather than terrifying.
Truthfully, few modern audiences will be able to detect much of what was truly disturbing about Frankenstein in its day, a consequence of the then-novelty of sound and the Pre-Code free-for-all, not to mention the mere fact that no one outside of Universal was going full-broke with lovingly visualized horror in the early ’30s. Audiences simply hadn’t seen material like this projected before. Today, however, while the streamlined storytelling remains strong and gripping, the performances spectacularly fun (including but not limited to Boris Karloff’s legendary, secretly good-natured Monster), and the degree of inventive iconography awe-inspiring enough to chill your bones, no, this has neither the shadowy mystery of the Ufa films of a decade earlier, nor the worldly directness of Tod Browning’s Freaks, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, even to some extent Universal’s own Dracula.
What it has instead is a sense of unerring showmanship; even if the visuals show their age, they’re hardly creaky, nor is the story itself. It’s a film worth looking over carefully, analyzing, revisiting, committing to the heart. Its fascinating quirks are many — the bizarrely wonderful performance by Frederick Kerr as Dr. Frankenstein’s doting father, for instance, or the completely baffling one by Lionel Belmore as the “Burgomaster,” or the absurdity of the pending marriage in the film, or the artificially put-on incompetence of Fritz, or the peculiarities in the brilliant production design and special effects by Kenneth Strickfaden, which essentially invented the aesthetics of the “mad scientist” picture. Or the amusingly casual finale. We could go on.
But there are also the moments that, amidst a film that beyond anything else is just incredibly and unceasingly fun, heroically so in fact, burst through everything else and genuinely stun, now as ever, with their breadth and magnitude. They’re obvious, of course: the resurrection scene, imitated implicitly and explicitly for the entire remainder of cinematic history; the remarkable sequence with Marilyn Harris as a little girl whose unjudging innocence nearly redeems the Monster until he is driven by his nature to kill her accidentally; the sobering aftermath of her death, with her body carried through the town; and finally, the burning of the Monster in the windmill. You’ve seen these scenes a million times, probably even if you’ve never seen the movie, but when you see them again you remain paralyzed, hypnotized.
The level of delight in Frankenstein, piercing its ostensible darkness, is perhaps the biggest detriment it suffers as an effective fright, but can we really fault a film for being delightful? Whale deserves much of the cdredit, of course, and Bride of Frankenstein would prove that his expertise exhibited here extended to actual storytelling mastery; these are two of the most masterful of all horror films and Whale authors and operates them in a sense that draws a clear difference between his work and even that of his peer Browning, whose films aren’t nearly so seamless and organized. But Whale must share the stage. With Karloff, of course, certainly. But more than anything, with makeup artist Jack Pierce, whose design of the Monster was his own original work, coming late in the production, and changed everything. Can we even imagine Halloween without the images he created? Can we imagine not merely American cinema but American life without them? I’m sure it’s possible but it’s incredibly difficult, which says everything.